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2017 GMC Canyon Test Drive Review
Among midsize pickup trucks, the 2017 GMC Canyon is the best at towing, at hauling, and at just about everything else.
At some point, everybody needs a truck. When that need arises, your choices are a midsize pickup, a full-size light-duty pickup, or a full-size heavy-duty pickup. If towing and hauling are a part of the plan, the 2017 GMC Canyon tackles the most weight in the smallest package.
Look and Feel
I don’t spend much time driving trucks. I don’t tow anything. I don’t carry heavy loads. And I find that my wife’s crossover SUV can tackle weekend chores around the house without much trouble.
Perhaps that helps explain why, historically, my favorite midsize truck was the Honda Ridgeline, an excellent Swiss Army Knife of a vehicle if there ever was one. But now that the Ridgeline looks like a minivan with an El Camino treatment, well, the rugged looking 2017 GMC Canyon is a more appealing alternative than ever.
Even in chrome-dipped Denali trim, the Canyon exudes truck toughness. The squared-off corners, the bold rectangular grille, and the exaggerated wheel-arch stampings impart rugged capability, and as I’ve witnessed during previous drives of Denali-branded GMCs, the luxed-up Canyon turns heads and inspires compliments.
“Nice truck you’ve got there,” grumbled one grizzled observer between puffs on a cigarette after exiting an Acura RDX. “Tried to talk my wife into one, but we ended up with that instead,” he lamented, hooking his thumb toward his fancy Honda CR-V.
Denali trim is new to the Canyon for 2017, and given that nearly a third of all GMCs sold include the upscale design and detailing treatment, you might rightly ask what took them so long. Available only for the Canyon Crew Cab, the Denali treatment costs $4,800 more than a Canyon SLT.
That money pays for a special chrome mesh grille, appealing 20-inch aluminum wheels, chrome fog-light surrounds, chrome side-step rails, and a polished exhaust tip. Functional upgrades include a Trailering Package, LED cargo-box lighting, and a spray-in bedliner.
Inside, the Canyon Denali adds heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a wireless smartphone charging pad, a Bose premium sound system, and an IntelliLink infotainment system with a larger 8-inch screen and navigation. Denalis also come with forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems. If you were expecting more in terms of luxurious upgrades, get on GMC’s Facebook page and ask them to offer an Ultimate Package similar to the one available for the larger Sierra Denali model.
Additional choices include a short or long cargo bed, rear-wheel or 4-wheel drive, and a gasoline V6 or turbocharged diesel 4-cylinder engine. GMC also asks you to pay extra for metallic paint. Going long, 4WD, diesel, and shiny produces a price tag of $48,490, and that’s before sampling anything from the accessories platter.
Lego-inspired styling cues give way to Lego-inspired interior plastics, producing the source of any disappointment I feel with regard to the Canyon Denali’s design. There’s nothing quite like hard, shiny, liberally employed, and easily scratched plastic to make you feel silly for spending upwards of $40,000 on a “luxury” truck.
When it comes to towing and hauling, Chevy and GMC dominate the midsize truck market. Properly equipped, a GMC Canyon (or its Chevrolet sibling, the Colorado) can tackle a trailer weighing as much as 7,700 pounds or a payload weighing up to 1,620 pounds.
My test truck’s configuration (V6 engine, short bed, 4WD) supplied 7,000 pounds of trailering capability and 1,550 pounds of payload capacity. To put that into perspective, that’s equivalent to six guys my size riding in the bed. As for what you can tow, well, that depends on several factors, doesn’t it?
For extra towing capability at the expense of payload capacity, choose the optional 2.8-liter turbodiesel 4-cylinder engine. This motor cranks out 181 horsepower at 3,000 rpm and a whopping 369 lb-ft of torque at just 2,000 rpm.
Chevy and GMC sell the only midsize trucks with a diesel engine, and when added to a Canyon Denali it bumps the tow rating by up to 700 pounds while reducing payload capacity by about 100 pounds. At the same time, the Duramax diesel also improves fuel economy by 4 miles per gallon in combined driving.
That sounds pretty good, until you consider that the diesel engine costs an extra $3,730. Then, suddenly, not so much.
Honestly, I found my test truck’s 3.6-liter V6 and 8-speed automatic transmission to be enormously satisfying. Power is robust, and the transmission is geared to make best use of it.
A new engine for 2017, this V6 makes 308 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque. It also features continuously variable valve timing, direct fuel injection, and Active Fuel Management cylinder deactivation technology designed to improve fuel efficiency. According to the EPA, the Canyon should return 19 mpg in combined driving, and my test truck achieved an impressive 21.1 mpg on my test loop.
Not only does the GMC Canyon look like a truck, it drives like a truck. From the driver’s seat, it feels stiff, heavy, and ready for some abuse. The steering is slow and weighty. The brake pedal is numb and hard to press. The drivetrain is calibrated to deliver a lurch off the line, even though maximum horsepower and torque peak at or over 4,000 rpm.
With that said, a few things stand out about how the Canyon tackled my usual test loop. First off, I certainly wasn’t expecting this truck to return 21.1 mpg. Also, the Denali is quiet inside, even at 80 mph on the freeway.
On the twisty mountain roads between my house and the California coast, the Denali handled remarkably well, with a flat cornering attitude and impressive grip from the 20-inch tires. However, on this part of the route, as my confidence increased, braking performance decreased, and the Canyon’s Duralife components got all hot and bothered even though temperatures were in the upper 50s. For a truck designed to tackle more weight than anything else in its class, any brake fade on such a cool day and with just a driver aboard is difficult to understand, let alone accept.
Finally, though the Canyon employs truck-tough body-on-frame construction, you can’t venture too far off the beaten path until you remove the front air dam and ditch the useless side-step rails. As a result, my test truck couldn’t tackle terrain any more difficult than what a Subaru Outback can master.
Form and Function
Another great thing about driving the GMC Canyon is its seat position. Wrapped in leather, the Denali’s heated and ventilated front seats are power adjustable. This means that you can sit up high with a great view over the hood as opposed to slouched down close to the floor and peering over an endless metallic landscape, the way you do in a Toyota Tacoma. In turn, this means outward visibility from the GMC is terrific.
Weirdly, the seat-recline function is manually operated, sounding and feeling cheap when used. This detail is just one of many that constantly remind the Canyon Denali’s owner that while this truck certainly is expensive, it ain’t anywhere close to truly luxurious.
Front seat occupants face a simple dashboard loaded with knobs and buttons, my favorite kind of design. You can even operate them while you’re wearing gloves, and you won’t need to use the touchscreen display to access most radio and all climate functions.
Front seat comfort is excellent, and the heating function includes the backrest, a nice touch. Getting into and out of this truck, however, is a pain in the butt, because the side rails get in the way. They’re helpful to children and shorter adults, but I’d rather they either weren’t included or were designed to fold up under the truck when not in use.
The rear seat is just big enough for adults, and GMC uses soft front seatbacks to improve comfort for people with longer legs. You won’t find a 115-volt power outlet back there, or even air conditioning vents, but GMC does supply a couple of USB ports.
Around back, the short cargo box is almost perfectly square, accessed using a dampened, locking tailgate. GMC also thoughtfully provides integrated steps at each corner of the rear bumper, and Denali models include a spray-in bedliner with the name of the truck stamped into it.
GMC’s IntelliLink infotainment system is currently one of my favorites in terms of simplicity, graphics, layout, and features. A logical menu structure, large and modern display icons, and a responsive touchscreen are just a few of the reasons I’m a fan. My main source of pleasure with IntelliLink is that GMC divorces the primary radio and climate controls from the screen, making it blissfully easy to adjust volume, change a station, or moderate cabin temperature.
Amusingly, on the GMC website, under the “Interior Safety” section, the company lists the OnStar Basic Plan as a feature. It’s free for the first 5 years of ownership. But the associated services have nothing to do with safety and everything to do with getting your butt back into the dealership for maintenance or service.
The OnStar Guidance Plan is free during a short 3-month trial period and costs a minimum of $349.90 annually thereafter—more if you go with a monthly subscription. Separately, data plans power the Canyon Denali’s 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot after the initial 3-month trial period, costing $20 per month for unlimited data. Is it worth almost $50 per month to keep all these features active? That’s for you to decide.
Frankly, among its competition, GMC provides Canyon buyers with the best infotainment system you can buy. From Siri Eyes Free compatibility to smartphone projection capability and from safe teen driving technology to its simple layout, the GMC Canyon’s IntelliLink setup basically mops the floor with offerings from Honda, Nissan, and Toyota.
When it comes to safety, the GMC Canyon Denali offers several unusual and useful features, especially for parents of both young and older children. At the same time, it omits some of the most important driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems commonly available today.
For example, no matter how much money you have to spend, you can’t get a blind-spot monitoring system, a rear cross-traffic alert system, or an automatic emergency braking system for this truck. In my opinion, all three of these technologies are among the most practical and effective collision-avoidance systems available in modern vehicles.
What you will get as a part of the Canyon’s standard equipment list is a reversing camera. The Denali models also come with a forward collision warning system and a lane-departure warning system. During testing, the forward collision warning system emitted just one false alert as the truck entered late-afternoon shadows on a sunny day while traveling away from the source of light.
Additionally, the Canyon’s OnStar services subscription includes automatic collision notification, which can help speed rescuers to your location following an accident.
This year, GMC adds Teen Driver technology to the Canyon, which allows the parents of young drivers to program specific vehicle attributes in such a way as to encourage safer driving habits. Teen Driver also spits out a report card showing how your kid used the truck while it was away from home.
Also, a new Rear Seat Reminder system debuts this year. If one of the truck’s rear doors is opened and closed prior to driving the vehicle, a chime sounds when the vehicle is parked and turned off in order to remind the driver that something, or someone, important might still be inside the vehicle. This feature is intended to help prevent parents from leaving children in hot or cold vehicles.
As far as crash-test results are concerned, the federal government gives the Canyon a 4-star overall crash test rating, mainly due to its 3-star rollover resistance score. So don’t make any sudden moves while you’re behind the wheel.
Buying a GMC Canyon Denali is not a cost-effective solution to your towing and hauling requirements, especially when full-size trucks are commonly available with thousands upon thousands of dollars in rebates. Even compared to other Canyon models, the Denali is a tough sell, mainly because aside from styling-related upgrades, few of its features are actually exclusive.
Nevertheless, a Canyon is more fuel efficient than a larger GMC Sierra 1500, and the Canyon’s relatively compact dimensions may provide incalculable value if you live someplace where roads are narrow and parking is tight. Ultimately, whether or not you find value here is dependent upon your specific wants and needs in a truck.
In my experience, the more time I spent with the GMC Canyon, the more I liked it. Comfortable, capable, stylish, and enjoyable to drive, the Canyon is my favorite midsize truck because it does everything well—according to my personal values and standards. Beyond this, however, thanks to its diesel engine option and long list of useful GearOn accessories, it offers a depth and breadth of variety unavailable in other midsize trucks (aside from its sibling, the Chevrolet Colorado).
This is not to say the competition isn’t worth investigation. The new Honda Ridgeline is a functional triumph wrapped in bodywork that resembles your grandmother’s favorite dress. The Toyota Tacoma has a track record of delivering bulletproof reliability, but I honestly can’t stand the driving position. Even the ancient Nissan Frontier provides impressive value when all you need is a basic truck at the cheapest price.
You can find good within any of the trucks in the midsize pickup segment. My opinion, however, is that the 2017 GMC Canyon provides more of it than any of its competitors.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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